Nine Ways to Engage Customers in Technical Documentation

Persuasion involves making compelling appeals to both our emotions and logic. Most people don’t consider technical writers natural persuaders, but the discipline of technical communication actually falls under the umbrella of Rhetoric, in most college programs for technical communication.

With its factual subject matter and informative style, technical communication appeals mostly to our logical sides. What many are surprised to learn is there have always been subtle ways that technical writers also appeal to our emotions.

Examples of emotional persuasion at work in technical documentation include the way technical writers directly address customers as “you,” the parallel writing structures, and the sense of trust technical documentation instills, through the credible presentation of detailed information.

Here are some traditional ways technical writers motivate customers to stay engaged with the text, complete steps, and refer back to the instructions, the next time they’re stuck.

1. Credibility

The accuracy and completeness of technical content—whether print or online– is the most important factor in convincing customers to follow the instructions or  refer to the instructions again. It doesn’t matter how pleasing content is presented or how well-written it is. If the steps are inaccurate or incomplete, your content—and product—loses credibility.

2. Visual Design Cues

Headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists help customers more easily scan the text. These navigational cues also create a mental hierarchy—in classic rhetoric what’s known as a schema— that structures the way readers think about our products. This technique is especially useful when explaining or understanding how products work, or grouping similar concepts, including tasks and roles. Templates and checklists reinforce these schemas–what in instructional design are known as learning scaffolds.

3. Entry Points

Convincing customers that they’ll find the information they’re seeking is one of the most important challenges technical writers face. Navigational aids—such as traditional TOCs, headings, online breadcrumb trails, print cross-references, online links, indexes, and other metadata—all reassure readers that the information they’re looking for is present and findable—and that the content is worth referring to, in the first place.

4. Concise Writing

In an increasingly visual, online world, concise writing–the hallmark of a task-based writing approach—is more important than ever to keeping distracted readers’ attention and encouraging customers to complete required actions.

5. Active Voice

Addressing the audience directly as “you” (with active verbs), not only ensures more concise writing, it also sets up a conversational and lively tone.

6. Parallelism

In Effective Rhetoric, Effective Writing: Parallelism in Technical Communication, Helen Fawcett shows how the repetition of parallel structures—as applies to headings, transitional elements, steps, and sentence parts—helps effectively group and present similar information, as well as create a sense of rhythm.

7. Visuals

Technical writers use tables, charts, graphs, and illustrations to present or reinforce information. Visual techniques apply even more so, for today’s social-media savvy customers, who prefer to process pictures, sounds, and video rather than text.

8. Consistent, Plain Language

Using the most concise terms consistently across all your media ensures that customers understand the underlying concepts and apply them, appropriately. Introducing different terms for the same concepts only frustrates readers and complicates translation for global audiences.

9. Professional Editing and Layout

In a “good enough,” real-time publishing world, the bar for professional-level documentation is lower than it used to be. It’s still worth remembering that writing, typographical, or other formatting issues can detract from our customers’ overall impression of a document’s usefulness, as well as its actual usability. Both factors affect how much customers want to use your documents.

Your Tips or Comments

How do you motivate customers to engage with the product documentation? Are digital media, audience-generated content, and personalization replacing, changing, or reinforcing the traditional ways we encourage customers to refer to and engage with our content?

As marketers incorporate a more informative, logical style of writing into their
content, how relevant will technical writers remain, if we don’t incorporate
more emotional appeals, directly into the user assistance? Wouldn’t this style
of writing be more natural to our customers?

Is there any way to reconcile a more affective approach to technical documentation, with content re-use and globalization requirements? or must by definition, these approaches remain incompatible?

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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

Technical Writers: Why STC Membership is Worth It

The Society of Technical Communication has been working with the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), since 2007 to update its definition of the technical communications profession. At long last, The Occupational Outlook and Handbook (OOH), published by the US Department of Labor’s BLS Web site in December 2009, has an individual report on technical writers. Through this classification, STC membership has provided the entire technical communications discipline a great service.

Though the Department of Labor turned down the Society’s request for a new classification, as “technical communication specialist,” the entry in the OOH states that technical writers are also known as “technical communicators.”

Many of the technical writer’s key qualifications and responsibilities (see below), including the technical writer’s communication skills and user focus, transfer especially well to a Web 2.0 world.

The Department of Labor’s forecast that technical writing job prospects are good, particularly for those with Web or multimedia experience, complements an emerging trend, known in content development circles as (note: link to pdf document follows) social technical communication, or convergence technical communication.

Significant Points about Technical Writers

Here are the significant points from the US Department of Labor’s description of technical writers:

  • Most jobs in this occupation require a college degree—preferably in communications, journalism, or English—but a degree in a technical subject may be useful.
  • Job prospects for most technical writing jobs are expected to be good, particularly for those with Web or multimedia experience.
  • Excellent communications skills, curiosity, and attention to detail are highly desired traits.

Excerpt about the Nature of Technical Writing Work

Here is an excerpt about the nature of technical writing work:

Technical writers, also called technical communicators, put technical information into easily understandable language. They work primarily in information-technology-related industries, coordinating the development and dissemination of technical content for a variety of users;
however, a growing number of technical communicators are using technical content to resolve
business communications problems in a diversifying number of industries. Included in their products are operating instructions, how-to manuals, assembly instructions, and other documentation needed for online help and by technical support staff, consumers, and other users within the company or industry. Technical writers also develop documentation for computer programs and set up communications systems with consumers to assess customer satisfaction and quality control matters. In addition, they commonly work in engineering, scientific, healthcare, and other areas in which highly specialized material needs to be explained to a diverse audience, often of laypersons.

Technical writers often work with engineers, scientists, computer specialists, and software developers to manage the flow of information among project workgroups during development and testing. They also may work with product liability specialists and customer service or call center managers to improve the quality of product support and end-user assistance. Technical writers also oversee the preparation of illustrations, photographs, diagrams, and charts. Technical writers increasingly are using a variety of multimedia formats to convey information in such a way that complex concepts can be understood easily by users of the information.

Applying their knowledge of the user of the product, technical writers may serve as part of a team conducting usability studies to help improve the design of a product that is in the prototype stage. Technical writers may conduct research on their topics through personal observation, library and Internet research, and discussions with technical specialists. They also are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter and establish their credibility with their colleagues.

Kudos to the The Society of Technical Communication for its work to gain official recognition for the technical writer’s diverse and timely skill set.

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